THE Prayer Book Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent is a powerful spur to the Christian discipline of personal Bible reading.
The Collect draws on the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans chapter 15 verse 4, which begins the Epistle reading for today: ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope’ (King James Version).
Paul was referring to the Old Testament Scriptures here, since the New Testament had not yet been completed when he wrote to the Christians at Rome in around AD 57. Paul reminded his Christian readers that God had always intended the Old Testament Scriptures to serve the spiritual education of those, both Jew and Gentile, who would come to believe in the promised Messiah, proclaimed as Jesus Christ by the witnesses of his resurrection from the dead.
In its reference to ‘all holy Scriptures’, the Collect encompasses both the Old and New Testaments: ‘Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.’
It is significant that the Collect refers to the Scriptures as ‘thy (the Lord’s) holy Word’. Thus, according to traditional Anglican teaching, the Bible is ultimately not the word of man but the Word of God. The human authors of the 66 books of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit so that what they wrote is spiritually and morally authoritative for God’s people down the ages and reveals his saving truth to sinful people.
Certainly, the Old Testament Scriptures need to be interpreted in the light of the New. Article VII of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, Of the Old Testament, affirms its spiritual authority for Christians: ‘The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.’
Article VII points out that the ceremonial and ritual sections in the Old Testament Law of Moses are no longer binding on Christian people because the spiritual purposes of these precepts have been fulfilled in Christ’s perfect sacrifice of himself on the Cross. But the Article is clear that the moral precepts of the Old Testament are binding on Christian people:
‘Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil Precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.’
In terms of personal Bible reading, our individual circumstances of course differ and we have different capacities at the various stages of life. The expectations that busy full-time mothers and people with demanding jobs, such as shift-workers on minimum wage, should put on themselves ought surely to be different from others with more leisure time. I believe there was no excuse for me not to have read through the whole Bible in my early 20s when I had no family responsibilities and had three-month summer vacations as a university student. In fact, I had not read every book of the Bible until I was at theological college in my 30s.
Neglect of personal Bible reading can take its toll. I remember shortly after I started as a parish vicar in 2000 holding a midweek service of morning prayer and asking a long-standing member of the church, an educated lady then in her 70s, to read one of the set Bible passages for which I gave the reference. She asked me which Testament the reading (I think it was from the book of Ezekiel) was in.
Whatever our circumstances, the Collect rightly enjoins Christian people to ‘hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the glorious message of the holy Scriptures because the Bible offers us the hope of everlasting salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.